Maurice McDonald took a while to get acclimated at PV, but once he did, he became a true dominating force
By KARL PEARSON
Tenth of a series...
It's actually rather ironic. Maurice McDonald isn't all that comfortable flying, yet virtually everything he has done since he was a teenager has been about soaring above the competition and easily clearing whatever obstacles may have been put in his path.
Thanks to the decision made by his parents, Billy and Ruth McDonald, when he was just getting established in high school, Maurice and his younger brother, Alan, were removed from a potentially dangerous environment on Cleveland's east side to the tranquil rural setting of Andover. It turned out to be a decision that had long-term impacts on their lives. It turned out to be a monumental development for basketball-hungry Pymatuning Valley High School, too.
Maurice McDonald of Pymatuning Valley (35) sets for a jump ball to begin the second half as referee Phil Garcia sets to toss the ball during a Grand River Conference game played Dec. 16, 1980 in the old Falcon Gym. At far left behind Garcia is Jefferson's Rick Berrier, while at the immediate left is Star Beacon Sports Editor Don McCormack and at right is PV's Eric Van Court. McDonald will be inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame on Sunday.
The arrival of the McDonalds coincided with a very productive era in boys basketball for the Lakers. In Maurice McDonald's junior year of 1980-81, he helped lead Denny Smith's team to a 14-7 record and the first of a string of four straight Grand River Conference championships.
In McDonald's senior season of 1981-82, Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Famer Bob Hitchcock, a great player in the early 1960s for the Lakers, returned for his second coaching stint at PV. He helped elevate McDonald's game even more, with the result a season averaging 19 points, 16.5 rebounds and six blocked shots per game while shooting 54 percent from the field and 63 percent from the foul line. That PV team went 17-5 and won the GRC again.
McDonald's ability to develop an all-around game helped him not only to a stellar career at PV, but gave him the opportunity to soar at the Air Force Academy. Soar he did, too, enjoying a very productive four-year career with the Falcons and coming up against several future NBA players, including Naismith Hall of Famer David Robinson of the Naval Academy and the San Antonio Spurs.
McDonald made the most, too, of the military commitment any graduate of a service academy takes when they sign on. For a number of years, after his graduation, he continued to participate in basketball for various Air Force teams, as well as teams that brought together players from all branches of the U.S. military to compete against similar squads from other countries.
Meanwhile, he rose up through the ranks of leadership in the Air Force. In a 21-year career, he eventually attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and had the opportunity to command a unit of 450 troops involved in logistics, supply and transportation in Alaska and Iraq.
Retired from the Air Force since 2008, with his last post at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, McDonald now works for the URS Corporation office in Dayton. URS, which employs 60,000 people nationwide, manages several government contracts and is also involved in business recruitment. He supervises about 40 people at the Dayton office.
McDonald's path has not removed him from basketball by any means. He has been able to find the time to do some coaching with his sons William, 11, and Michael, 10. He and his wife, Sylvia, have been married for 15 years. He has also spent the past two years getting his feet wet in high school basketball officiating.
Certainly, basketball has been an elevating aspect of McDonald's life. Now, he is reaching a new pinnacle with his selection to the ACBF Hall of Fame on Sunday. Unfortunately, prior commitments will keep him from attending the banquet at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
"I'm very honored because I know only a select few people make the Hall of Fame," he said. "I'm very honored to have the opportunity to be inducted."
He's also excited to be linked again to fine opposing players and especially with Hitchcock.
"That's fantastic," the 46-year-old McDonald said. "I learned quite a bit from Coach Hitchcock. He came to the dinner when I made lieutenant colonel. I've always appreciated Coach Hitchcock."
Maurice Mcdonald of PV goes to the rack as Randy Roach of Jefferson defends during a game played Dec. 16, 1980 at the old Falcon Gym.
Hitchcock is certainly high on McDonald's credentials for the Hall of Fame. He points to McDonald's parents with giving their son the wings he needed to truly take off.
"Like most youngsters who have been better than average players, I think it starts at home," Hitchcock said. "His dad had played the game a lot around Cleveland, and I think, even a little for the Pipers (of the old American Basketball League). The bloodlines, obviously, were there, plus Maurice had lots of athletic ability and he was willing to work hard at his game.
"I think Maurice's parents were very influential in his life. They wanted their children to be well-rounded people, not just athletically, but academically and musically. As a coach, you always appreciate kids who have moms and dads who are so supportive. His parents really took the initiative with Maurice and Alan (and older child Charlotte)."
Jack Thompson was one of the players who was fortunate to share the court with McDonald. He attests to his classmate's worthiness for the Hall of Fame.
"It was an honor to play with Maurice," Thompson, now an assistant superintendent in the Kenston school system after a successful run as Jefferson High School baseball coach, said. "He's the best athlete I ever played with."
There are other characteristics Thompson admired about McDonald, though.
"Maurice was also the most humble athlete I've been around. He was very quiet and was willing to put in whatever work was needed to get it done. He made me and everyone else around him better. He's definitely worthy of being in the Hall of Fame."
The right move
The McDonald family lived on East 114th Street in Cleveland, one street over from the old John Adams High School. The early basketball education of the McDonald brothers came at the homes of neighborhood friends and even in their own driveway.
"We used to play in someone's driveway starting when I was 10 or 12," McDonald said. "We had a hoop put up in our yard when I was 13."
But their neighborhood was becoming an increasingly scary place to live as Maurice headed into his high school years. Some incidents around John Adams in the summer before he was to begin his sophomore year there convinced his parents it was time to find a safer place to live.
"I went to the school for orientation that summer," McDonald said. "There were a lot of guys around there that were into vandalism. My mom (who is now deceased) wanted to get us out of that area."
Fortunately, Billy McDonald had a plan.
"My great-great uncle, my mother's great uncle, had a big farm out in Andover and my dad bought some of the land," Maurice said. "It was about three acres of land on Footville-Richmond Road. Gordon Hitchcock (Bob Hitchcock's brother) was our nearest neighbor, and he lived a mile and a half away.
"My dad had a bunch of pigs and cows on that farm. But Alan and I didn't have any part of that."
The two boys weren't too happy about the sudden move, at least initially.
"It was a shock moving out to the country like that," Maurice said. "I don't believe I spoke to my parents for about a month and a half. It was the best thing that could have happened, as it turned out. But it was a tough summer between my freshman and sophomore years."
Hitchcock spoke to the commitment Billy McDonald made to keep his family in that safe environment.
"He kept his job in Cleveland the whole time they lived in Andover," he said. "That was an hour's drive each way, and that was in good weather."
New kids in town
Thompson recalled the first time he and several of the incumbent PV players encountered Maurice and Alan McDonald for the first time.
"I remember Dr. (Randall) Tharp always gave free physicals," he said. "I remember the buzz it created when Maurice and Alan showed up. It was like, ‘Who are these guys?' As time went along, we were all sure glad they showed up."
As curious as their future teammates were about the McDonalds, the current of curiosity ran both ways.
"I was extremely nervous when we went to school," McDonald said. "We went from a situation where it was 98 percent black students to two percent white students to just the opposite."
He need not have feared.
"I thought we were received with open arms," McDonald said. "We were treated so well by everybody. Alan really made friends quickly."
Basketball helped the McDonalds make friends rapidly.
"Basketball made me feel comfortable," Maurice said. "I think it helped me make friends quickly, too."
McDonald found a couple coaches who seemed be ideally suited to make him feel welcome in junior varsity coach Paul Heinbaugh and head coach Denny Smith, although Smith was a bit of an acquired taste. It took some time for the growing youngster to learn the nuances of the game, including conditioning, so he split time between the JV and varsity squads.
"The first game I played against Harbor, I thought I'd played pretty well, but (Heinbaugh) didn't and I heard something was said about they wished I'd go back to Cleveland," McDonald said. "But it was the first time I'd ever played on a real court, either indoors or outdoors, so the hardest thing for me was to run up and down the court.
"I'd watched a lot of basketball on TV, but it was a lot different than doing it. I had no fundamentals and no training in how to post people up. (Smith and Heinbaugh) spent a lot of time on rebounding drills and basic drills of post play. I learned to set picks and how to get into the post and what to do when I got the ball. It probably took a couple months, probably about five or six games."
Smith realized he had a diamond in the rough, so he spent plenty of time doing extra work with McDonald, who proved a willing pupil.
"He spent a lot of time with me one on one," McDonald said. "He spent a lot of time working with me either before or after practice.
"He was a very energetic and funny guy. He'd do anything for you. One time, I got real sick and he took me to the doctor for a flu shot."
McDonald improved enough to help PV to a 9-11 record in the 1979-80 season. He was one of many rather inexperienced Lakers, with John Lipani the only senior. Alan Miller, who was to become another key player for Smith's Lakers and suffered through a rather star-crossed career before a fine career at Hiram College, was also part of that team.
"We didn't win the GRC that year," McDonald said. "We lost to Southington." Southington and Jefferson shared the league title that year.
That season also set the stage for a new era of big things in PV basketball.
McDonald ended his sophomore season with the notion that he and players like Thompson, Greg Douglas and Terrence Greene, along with Miller, were headed for much better times. To try and hasten his development, he went for the first time to basketball camp at Westminster College in Pennsylvania. He liked it so much he went back before his senior year.
"It was a great experience," McDonald said. "I was named the Most Improved Player my first year. One of the coaches taught me how to shoot free throws. He changed my motion completely and it really helped."
Those Lakers also had a history of success upon which to call.
"It was a group that hadn't lost since middle school," McDonald said. "One of the things that had helped me, too, was the fact we had lost Alan Miller, our center, with a broken foot during my sophomore year, which meant they sort of needed to forcefeed me to take over the job. I guess I sort of grew into the job. I think if Alan hadn't got hurt and they needed to use me sooner, my progression would have been a lot slower."
That accelerated experience paid off for PV for the 1980-81 season in 14-7 season and the GRC title.
"I remember Southington was good, and we had high hopes when we played them," McDonald said. "I remember playing Jefferson at home and Dad telling me it was the loudest game he had ever been at. We won, and I think I had a good game, something like 20 points. I think I made all-county, too."
"I remember our games against Jefferson in our junior year, too," Thompson said. "I remember Maurice hitting a crucial baseline jumper late in the game that hit nothing but net. That was a great game."
McDonald has another memory of his junior year.
"I remember our tournament game at the end of the season a bit, too," he said. "I think we played Warren JFK, which had a strong center and a real tough guard. I think we lost to them in overtime."
Buoyed by those experiences, McDonald was driven to try and improve his game even more, so he went back to camp at Westminster, which turned out to be another productive experience.
"I was the camp MVP that year," he said.
But when he came back to PV, Denny Smith was gone, a victim of a RIF (Reduction in Force) at the school.
"I was disappointed because I had a rapport with Coach Smith," McDonald said. "He had put me in a different role my junior year. He introduced me to playing more outside the key out to 15-18 feet from the basket and he wanted me to handle the ball more. He taught me how to take people off the dribble.
"I always appreciated him. He ran tough practices and there was no messing around. He gave me discipline."
McDonald wasn't sure what to expect when Hitchcock was chosen to return as head coach. His concerns were quickly set aside.
"When we were notified he was going to be the head coach, he called me and Jack Thompson in and talked to us," McDonald said. "He definitely had a different style. He didn't scream as much as Coach Smith."
Hitchcock altered McDonald's game even more.
"Maurice was a young man who had played with his back to the basket a lot," he said. "I knew at his size (6-foot-5) that if he wanted to play at a bigger school, we were going to need to put him in a position where he was going to face the basket a lot more."
"Coach Hitchcock had me play more of a small forward's position," McDonald said. "He had more roaming around a lot more. I got to handle the ball a lot more and helped break the press."
There was a bit of an adjustment period for the team among the personnel, too.
"We had one difficulty," McDonald said. "Greg Douglas had been our point guard, and he moved away for a while, then came back during the season. That took a little bit of adjusting. Terrence Green came in and helped a lot, too."
The 1981-82 season produced a second straight GRC title, this time under Hitchcock's direction. As usual, the games against Jefferson were important. Another memorable game was a non-conference matchup with Badger, which featured Dale Blaney, who led the Braves to the state tournament that year before heading off to a fine career at West Virginia and eventually, for a brief time, with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I remember playing against Blaney," McDonald said. "We lost the game, but it was a lot of fun.
"You know, the losses always seem to stick with you more. It was the same with our tournament game that year. We were playing another one of the good Warren-area teams and we were up by one at halftime, but we ended up losing by 20."
Hitchcock recalls that game, too.
"I remember that game against Blaney," he said. "It basically came down to a battle between Maurice and Blaney. We tried to get the ball in Maurice's hands as much as we could and Badger tried to have Blaney with the ball. They were going at each other at both ends. It eventually almost came down to a one-on-one game between them, even at halfcourt. It went down to the last few possessions and the last few seconds. They won, but it was a great game."
Rocky Mountain high
The Jefferson games of McDonald's senior year actually had even greater significance in deciding his college destination.
"The Air Force Academy had a recruiter in the Andover area and he had sent an article from the Star Beacon about me out there," he said. "They sent one of their assistant coaches out to one of the Jefferson games and to visit me and my family.
"They flew me out there to visit. I had never flown by myself before, and I actually missed the connecting flight from Denver to Colorado Springs. I've flown a lot on commercial airlines since, but I really don't like to fly. I like to be closer to the ground."
Before that, he had entertained going to several Ohio and Pennsylvania schools.
"I had looked at Hiram because Alan Miller was there and at Rio Grande because John Lipani was there," McDonald said. "I visited Ohio University and Westminster wanted me after going to camp there."
But the visit to the Air Force Academy did the trick.
"I really liked it out there and I had the test scores and the grades to get in," he said. "I wanted to go play ball, and I thought I looked cool in a uniform.
"I had no idea about the military life. I knew I had a five-year commitment, but I figured five years was no big deal. I didn't see the regimentation of it, either."
Once he arrived on campus for school, he found out about that in a hurry as he was immediately introduced to the hazing process inflicted on all first-year recruits, known as doolies at the Air Force Academy.
"I got in a fight my first day out there with a senior who was about 5-2," McDonald said. "He yelled at me and then he grabbed me. After that, my name was mud for a few months."
But, basketball again bailed him out.
"I made the varsity and played as the sixth man," McDonald said. "I got to travel, and that helped me get away from a lot of things."
His first coach at Air Force is someone to whom Cleveland Cavaliers fans can relate.
"My first coach out there was Hank Egan, who is one of Mike Brown's assistants with the Cavs now," McDonald said. "I got a chance to talk with him for a few minutes last year when they played down in Dayton."
Egan was quite a change for McDonald.
"He was tougher than Coach Smith or Coach Hitchcock," McDonald said. "He had grown up military. He said it and you did it. His mentor had been Bobby Knight. He ran a no-frills system. You didn't do anything fancy."
There were other adjustments.
"I wasn't used to the altitude in Colorado Springs, so it took me a while to get in shape to play college basketball," McDonald said. "There was a lot of physical training, too."
But gradually he fit in with the Falcons, who were part of a very competitive Western Athletic Conference that included Brigham Young, Utah, New Mexico and the University of Texas-El Paso with famed coach Don Haskins.
"I always loved play in The Pit at New Mexico," McDonald said. "I always seemed to play well there. And we beat Utah at home my freshman year."
By his sophomore year, he was Egan's main man, and the coach worked him hard to expand his game.
"I hadn't known it, but during my sophomore year, Dan Kraft, the assistant coach, told me I had been their No. 1 recruit as a freshman," McDonald said. "My sophomore year, I learned to play one-on-one more. I worked hard on the 3-pointer. I learned to operate as a solid triple-threat player and how to create my own shot."
He did it well, earning team MVP honors for the 1983-84 season. His highlight night of that season, and probably of his career, came on Feb. 20, 1984, appropriately enough against New Mexico, when he hit all 10 of his field-goal attempts.
McDonald shrugs off the MVP award from that season, though.
"In my sophomore year, the WAC really didn't know about me," he said. "They did when I was a junior."
By then, he was playing for a new coach, Reggie Minton.
"I think he's in administration with the NCAA now," McDonald said. "Egan had taken the job at San Diego State.
"Coach Minton was a lot like Denny Smith. He reminded me a lot of Bill Cosby. He wanted to run and gun no matter what. I loved it because all I was asked to do was rebound and fill the lane for layups."
There were memorable moments in that 1984-85 season.
"We played BYU in the WAC Tournament at their place and we upset them," he said. "I had 27 points in that game, which was the conference tournament scoring record at that time. Then we played at Utah and lost on a shot at the buzzer.
"Later in my junior year, I got to play in a tournament in Japan against David Robinson from Navy. He was the MVP and I got the Fighting Spirit Award from the tournament organizers. He was one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and I got to play with his younger brother later on in the Air Force."
In his senior season, McDonald was able to elevate himself to back to status as the Falcons' MVP.
"We slowed things down a bit that year," he said. "I had a good solid year. We played two games in the WAC Tournament. We beat Hawaii, then lost to Wyoming on a halfcourt shot. I didn't think about it right away, but later on I realized that was the last game of my college career.
"Fennis Dembo, who played for the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys when they were NBA champs, played for that Wyoming team. I also played that year against Michael Cage from San Diego State, who later played for the Cavaliers."
For his career, McDonald scored 1,121 points while shooting 48 percent from the field and more than 80 percent from the foul line.
After the Academy
Basketball remained a big part of McDonald's life for another eight years after he stopped playing for the Air Force Academy.
"My college career was a great experience because I'd never been out of Ohio until I went to the Academy," he said. "After that, I got to see 40 of the 50 states and all kinds of countries overseas. I had a fantastic career playing service ball for another eight years or so, too, playing for Air Force teams and even Armed Services teams."
His military postings took McDonald all over the world, too.
"I lived in places like England, Turkey and even Iraq," McDonald said. "We've been in Florida, Georgia, Alaska and Hawaii. I was more involved in the maintenance of aircraft instead of flying."
His 21-year career in the Air Force allowed McDonald to achieve some other personal goals.
"I've been able to do pretty much all I've ever wanted," he said. "One of my goals was to command a big unit, and I got to do that from 2004-06 in Alaska and Iraq."
He met Sylvia, who is from Mississippi, on one of his postings in Florida.
McDonald has enjoyed doing various basketball projects since he retired.
"I did some coaching with my sons," he said. "It's a lot of fun working with kids at their age. I tried to teach them some fundamentals and let them have some fun."
His venture into officiating has taught McDonald some new lessons about basketball.
"I've been experiencing things from the other side, especially dealing with coaches and fans," he said with a laugh. "I have all the respect in the world for refs now.
"Being a referee is almost as regimented as being in the military. You have to take a regimented approach to the game. You have to practice the moves and positioning and how to make the calls. It's a tough job."
Over the years, McDonald's appreciation for what basketball has given him has grown immensely.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without basketball," he said. "It helped me get into into college, and if it wasn't for basketball, I wouldn't have gone to the Academy, get to travel or to meet my wife.
"Basketball has kept me pretty grounded. It's taught me to deal with a lot of situations. It taught me leadership, from the time I was captain of my teams in high school and at the Academy through my military career.
"It's helped me continue to learn and to continue trying to improve."